October 15, 2009

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(Editor's note: From the fall 2009 edition of Bucknell Magazine.)

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Herb Wilcox '50 led the team of engineers that built the picture tube for the video camera that recorded Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon. Forty years later, Bucknell University graduate Wilcox pauses to look back.

Q: What were the technical challenges involved?

A: In addition to functioning in that odd environment, the lunar camera had to be very small and very light, about seven pounds. At that time, television cameras — it took two people to pick them up and put them on a tripod. They weighed about 200 pounds. Building the tube was like building a ship in a bottle — a very small bottle. We made dozens of these devices. Those that met or exceeded specifications were as valuable as jewels.

Q: Yet you say the camera's real importance was as a PR tool ....

A: The TV images from the moon were, by modern standards, rather crude, even falling far short of commercial TV at that time. But they were real time, and that was absolutely critical. To this day there are conspiracy theorists who will swear the whole thing was filmed on the back lot of some motion picture studio or out in the desert. Suppose for a moment that there had been no TV system. Who would've believed it was really happening?

Q: Where were you in July 1969, during the landing?

A: My wife and I and our three kids were spending the weekend with my grandparents in Philadelphia. We watched it, of course. Another interviewer asked me, "Weren't you excited? Didn't you jump up and down?" That wasn't the case. I knew those tubes were the best we could do. I figured if the camera didn't fall apart on impact it was going to work. And it did.

Q: What are your thoughts looking back at this Apollo anniversary and your part in it?

A: It was a watershed moment, the end point of the old science of electronic vacuum tubes. This was as good as they could get, and anything better had to be, well, solid state. I think it's ironic and somewhat sad that two of the major players, Westinghouse and RCA, no longer exist. But something that I held in my hands, me and a few other people, is still sitting up there on the moon.

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